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Stefanie Hahner, Martin Fassnacht, Fabian Hammer, Markus Schammann, Dirk Weismann, Immo Alex Hansen, and Bruno Allolio

Objective: A serine protease from rat adrenal cortex was recently characterized and named adrenal secretory protease (AsP). AsP is expressed in the adrenal cortex and is capable of cleaving pro-γ-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (1-76 N-terminus of pro-opiomelanocortin) into fragments that act as adrenal mitogens. AsP may therefore play a crucial role in adrenal growth and tumourigenesis. The aim of this study was to further characterize the human homologue of AsP and its possible role in adrenal tumourigenesis.

Methods and results: Starting with the rat cDNA sequence of AsP we detected high homology to the catalytic C-terminus of the human airway trypsin-like protease (HAT). Further analysis revealed that the HAT gene is the human homologue of a long splice variant of AsP, which we recently described as rat airway trypsin-like serine protease 1. In contrast to rodents, no short isoform of HAT was found in humans due to a stop codon in exon 6 which prevents the expression of a short isoform. While high expression of HAT mRNA was found in the trachea and in the gastrointestinal tract, expression in the adrenal was only very weak. RT-PCR and real-time PCR analysis revealed a complex tissue expression pattern of HAT, indicating a role for this protease in multiple tissues. We further investigated HAT expression in five normal adrenal glands, 15 adrenocortical adenomas (five hormonally inactive adenomas, five aldosterone-producing adenomas and five cortisol-producing adenomas), nine adrenocortical carcinomas, five phaeochromocytomas and two adrenal hyperplasias. Weak HAT expression was detectable in only two out of five normal adrenal glands, in one out of twenty-four adrenocortical tumours and four out of five phaeochromocytomas. However, the expression in the adrenal tissue was several orders of magnitude lower than in the trachea. In addition, we could not detect any HAT transcripts in a sample of fetal adrenal.

Conclusion: Gene structure and tissue distribution of HAT, the human homologue of the rat adrenal secretory protease AsP, reveal major interspecies differences. The observation of very low expression levels in normal adrenal tissue and adrenocortical tumours casts doubt about a role for HAT in the physiological and pathological growth of adrenocortical cells.